“For those who came in late”, you are exploring Delhi over the seemingly short span of seven days, and Days 1,2 and 3 were about “Old” Delhi (which is, really, second newest), Tughlaqabad (fairly medieval Delhi), and Purana Qila (legendarily the oldest, but in actuality a fine thread through history). Now, for the rest of the week…
India does not exactly have a great record for the preservation of its history, but this record has been repaired, if inadequately, in the past decade or so. The unsurprising discovery has been that many sites have layers to them. First occupied when X conquered Delhi, then, when town Y was sacked and the population fled here, so on and so forth. These are of course only historical surmises – despite the tantalizing bright spots and general clues, our command over historical narrative thins away the further back we go. And nowhere is this more frustratingly apparent than in Mehrauli, whose very name is a riddle that has scarce been cracked, but still finds reflection in such modern surnames as Mehra.
For the not-so-curious traveler, Mehrauli holds but one attraction: The Qutub Minar, which is by itself a complex archaeological complex – if you’ll excuse the double entendre! But, and don’t hold your breath, the Qutub complex is only one fraction of the vast “sprawl” of Mehrauli – with the more curious traveler likely to find himself/herself traipsing over walls over a thousand years old in the Lal Kot ruins to the west and north of the Qutub Minar Area, but also eager to explore the various baolis and tombs within Mehrauli village and to its south-eastern edge.
The aptly named Mehrauli Archaeological Complex (which can be accessed from the east via Aurobindo Marg and from the visit from within Mehrauli village) takes the visitor on a roller-coaster ride in time, if not space with ruins from the Mamluk (or Slave) Dynasty era (the folks who built the Qutub Minar, f.y.i.) lying exposed side-by-side ruins from later periods – right down to Metcalfe’s “folly” of the British period. For this writer, though, Mehrauli is not just about the ruins, but also about legends – more on that later. But rest assured that Day 4 – and maybe even 5 if you start late – will involve a fairly extensive combing of Mehrauli.
If you look up Chandni Chowk, Purana Qila, Tughlaqabad, and Mehrauli on a map of Delhi, you realize you’ve defined the southern edge of “historical” Delhi, and set up reference points to the north and east. Indeed, the eastern edge is very much the Yamuna – strictly historically speaking, mind you! On Day 5, starting slightly north of Purana Qila, you can piece together the north-eastern edge, starting at Feroz Shah Kotla – the fort and not the identically named stadium, by the way. In my humble opinion, nothing illustrates the vastness of Delhi better than this marvelously picturesque ruin, which is nearly invisible from the main road! It is only once you walk in through the gate, with the noise tapering away behind you, that you feel the timelessness grip you by the wrist and pull you in… into mystery and awe.
One can connect Mehrauli and Feroz Shah Kotla in terms of the living presence of history, especially in legendary form. In Kotla, there are more than stories – the ruins are dotted with entreaties to unnamed beings – written requests for an audience with power(s) unknown. This perhaps makes for an ideal setting for discussing historical mysteries but please ensure that your entourage does not have any weak-at-heart folk! You could talk about the tomb you may have visited the previous day in Mehrauli, that of Jamali-Kamali, where it is not really known who is buried next to the Pir (seer) Jamali. Or you could talk about another tomb – that within the Lal Kot ruins, and who lies buried there. There are also less morbid things to talk about – Delhi’s green cover, the various blends of architecture, the “wildlife”, and the strange echoes in names. For instance, there’s a Lal Kot as well as a Lal Qila (both meaning Red Fort), but they’re not the same; nor is Purana Qila (Old Fort) in Purani Dilli (Old Delhi), and neither are really old!
From Kotla, heading north past the “Dilli Gate” (of the old Shahjahanabad, or “Old” Delhi) you pass through Daryaganj, the hub of publishing houses, and also second-hand booksellers. Go further, past the Red Fort, winding up to the seat of the Delhi Legislature in the Civil Lines area, and then head into one of Delhi’s green pockets, the Kamala Nehru Ridge Park. Here, close to the entrance of the Hindu Rao Hospital is the one easily distinguishable marker that long ago, this was the realm of the same Sultan who built Kotla, Firuz Shah Tughlaq, whose Ferozabad spanned a corridor along the Yamuna that now bears monuments from other ages as well. Yet, the marker I referred to is not a Tughlaq-era construction at all, but instead, ‘borrowed’ remnants of a far older period – the markers are Ashokan pillars, originally built in the 3rd century BC, moved to Delhi from sites outside!
With five days now elapsed, I hope and believe the picture emerging of Delhi is of an evolving landscape that’s continuously provided a setting for the furious overlapping of historical forces, which have consequently shaped history and local culture. And indeed, although you could easily spend Days 6 and 7 combing through other ruins or modern constructions, a dip into the local culture might be a more optimum choice. The dargah, or mausoleum, of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin, in the area bearing the same name, attracts a host of visitors for many reasons, especially it is one of those nights when there is qawwali happening (usually Thursday or Saturday). The literary-minded can also delight in the connections this place has with the poets who lived in Delhi in various eras.
Walking out of Nizamuddin, head west onto Lodhi Road, where the India Habitat Centre is a veritable hub for modern cultural pursuits – any evening, you are likely to witness a play or a film screening or other performance; the place also has its own art galleries and eateries. Further down Lodhi Road, you can observe the quiet mingling of old and new in the Lodhi Gardens, at once a tapestry from a forgotten time as well as a site for modern health-savvy pursuits, as well as quiet rendezvouses and energetic gatherings.
On the morning of the 7th day, if you look up a list of places to see, you might feel you’ve covered woefully little ground. Perhaps that is only to be expected in any large-sized city with a fairly rich history. Again, our little seven-day sojourn was about the extremes and the intensity of Delhi, in close proximity. The Metro line whizzing by close to Mehrauli Archaeological Park, the swank of Khan Market a stone’s throw from Purana Qila and so on. With much of this already part of our travel memory, we spend the final day in a comparative monotone, strolling through New Delhi proper, that enclave of wide avenues, palatial properties, and what began life as a possible new centre of Empire. Spend the day at the National Museum, taking stock of all that you’ve seen and giving your memories chronological context, have lunch at one of the government guest house canteens in the neighborhood (e.g. the Andhra Pradesh Bhawan Canteen), and watch India Gate and the crowds thronging it come alive as the sun sets, on the city as well as your journey.